The Finnish woman was desperate.
Suffering from untreatable abdominal cancer, she was willing to try almost anything. When she heard researchers had surmised that an existing leukemia drug might also be effective against her cancer, she insisted on trying it.
It worked. After taking the drug, her condition was almost miraculously better. In later US trials, others with the same disease also showed big improvements.
This is the kind of success story that Tyler Jacks, recently appointed director of MIT's Center for Cancer Research, likes to see. This occurrence and others like it prove that a good molecular understanding of cancer can generate effective treatments. MIT researchers, including Jacks, were among those who predicted that Gleevec, a drug approved for chronic myelogenous leukemia, would help patients with the rare and otherwise incurable cancer called gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST).
FROM LAB TO BEDSIDE
Jacks and CCR associate director Jacqueline Lees, an associate professor of biology, take the helm of the center at a crucial point in the battle against cancer. The Center for Cancer Research (CCR) was one of a handful of cancer centers founded with government money at medical schools and universities during the "war on cancer" in the 1970s. There are now around 50 such centers, yet only 10 in the country and two in New England, among them the CCR, are still specifically dedicated to basic research.
"The research going on in this building today is highly significant for the control and prevention of cancer in the future," said Jacks, professor of biology and an associate investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "Much of what goes on here is at the basic level, and it's important to emphasize that. Basic research is the foundation for advances in treatment and diagnosis of cancer."
Recent buzzwords such as "translational research" tout the idea that cutting-edge techniques should move quickly from the laboratory to the bedside. "A lot of basic research has to happen before translational research can even be considered," Jacks said. "Research is the engine that drives the whole process forward. Basic research creates the targets that over time lead to better therapies."
The hope of the future in cancer treatment are so-called rationally designed drugs--targeted therapies that attack specific cancer cells without damaging healthy cells. Only three such drugs to date have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Two of them--Gleevec and Herceptin, for breast and ovarian cancer--are tied to early discoveries at the CCR.
"A whole new generation of drugs is currently in clinical testing and many more are in earlier stages of development," Jacks said. "Two decades of work to understand cancer at a molecular level has allowed us to consider new approaches and strategies designed to foil the cancerous cell in different ways."
The philosophy that underlies the CCR was spelled out by its first director, the late Salvador E. Luria, a Nobel laureate and biology department head. He believed that cancer research needs to investigate both cancer cells and normal cells to understand how and why normal cells become cancerous. Luria was succeeded by Institute Professor Phillip A. Sharp and then Richard O. Hynes, the Daniel K. Ludwig Professor of Cancer Research, who stepped down in July after 10 years in the position.
Luria's approach paid off. Among the firsts to come out of the CCR are the cloning of the first oncogene from a human tumor by Professor Robert Weinberg's group, work that has revolutionized the way scientists think about the origins of human cancer.
ATTACK WITH TECHNOLOGY
The membership of the CCR includes the 13 resident faculty members as well as an additional 13 cancer researchers from all over the Institute--including the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research (of which Weinberg, the Ludwig Professor of Cancer Research and American Cancer Society Professor of Biology, is a member); the biology and chemistry departments (chemistry is increasingly being used to understand biology, Jacks pointed out); and the Division of Bioengineering and Environmental Health (BEH), another important CCR partner.
CCR faculty now collaborate with colleagues on a new technology called DNA microarray or gene expression chips, which promise to monitor the activity of the whole genome on a single chip so that researchers can have a better picture of the interactions among thousands of genes simultaneously.
Working with the Department of Biology and the BEH, the CCR also has established a shared computing facility for bioinformatics and biological computation. Bioinformatics analyzes DNA and protein sequence for similar and different gene expression patterns in normal cells and in cancer cells. Another spotlight is on proteins, which carry out the functions of a cell. In the field called proteomics, drug developers and cell biologists alike seek to know all of the cell's protein by structure and function and functional interactions.
These new techniques, which all still present challenges for researchers, also allow higher resolutions and a greater fundamental understanding of normal and cancer cells than ever before.
"This type of technology is expensive and constantly evolving. It's not practical for individual labs to establish on their own, and you need highly trained and dedicated staff to run the equipment. But the center can serve as a nexus for interaction among researchers who want to use the latest techniques in their work," Jacks said.
Jacks hopes to lengthen the CCR's reach farther through connections with electrical engineering and computer science, mathematics, physics and other engineering disciplines by formalizing some lab-to-lab collaborations in those areas. He would like to raise awareness of the CCR inside and outside the MIT community. To that end, the center will sponsor a weekly in-house seminar series highlighting the latest research advances by individuals tied to the CCR. An annual spring cancer symposium will feature speakers from outside MIT.
"My goal is to take advantage of MIT's robust resources in technological development to maintain and create an infrastructure based on the latest technology to approach the problem of cancer in the most sophisticated ways," he said. Although there has been much progress in the war on cancer, he is determined to use all available weapons to win every possible battle.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 19, 2001.